Books on GIF #24 — 'The Sympathizer' by Viet Thanh Nguyen


Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.

This Sunday's book is 'The Sympathizer' by Viet Thanh Nguyen.


My apologies for skipping last week's Books on GIF. I was out of town for the weekend and hadn't finished this book in time. 'The Sympathizer,' a Pulitzer prize-winning book, describes the fallout of the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective. It also lists grievances against white America's indifference and racism toward the Vietnamese in particular and Asians in general, especially through Hollywood. For many white Americans, at least from my generation, their understanding of the Vietnam War was likely formed by:


Maybe, also:

And of course:

These films express how the Vietnam War affected the collective psyche of white men. Whether the protagonists are portrayed as heroes or monsters, the war is something that exclusively happens to them, and by extension to white America. The Vietnamese are a faceless enemy, whose sole reason to exist is to be the villain. Their reasons for fighting, and their experiences of colonialism and repelling foreign forces, are irrelevant. I think Rambo best sums up the collective purpose of these films when, as he heads off to rescue American POWs, he asks Col. Troutman: 'Do we get to win this time?' Through Rambo and these movies, we find catharsis and we get a do-over in Vietnam, one we get to win. But stories told from the perspective of those who actually won the Vietnam War are rare in America. So are GIFs depicting actual Vietnamese, so here's a relevant phrase:

There are many trials and tribulations in 'The Sympathizer.' It is written as the confession of an unnamed communist agent who worked as a mole within the south Vietnamese secret police. You learn right away that he's being held prisoner in a communist reeducation center, and over the course of the story — which winds its way from Vietnam to Guam to Los Angeles to the Philippines to Thailand and back to Vietnam — you find out why.

It's an important book, and a complex one. Still, I had problems with it. For one, everything about the book felt like an obvious literary device. The unnamed main character, for example, is the offspring of a French priest and a Vietnamese maid who goes to college in America. I get it, he's a metaphor. His turmoil is supposed to mirror that of Vietnam. But he was such a deplorable character — at times murderous, spineless, conniving and irredeemable — that the reader can't sympathize with him. Maybe that was the point? But it made the middle of the book tedious.

And then there was this mid-book diversion to the Philippines where the main character acts as an advisor on an 'Apocalypse Now' type movie. This felt conjured out of nowhere just so the character could lecture the reader about the depictions of Asians in culture and film. Don't get me wrong, this is a really important issue, as Asians are still marginalized in movies. Take, for example, the ongoing phenomenon of 'whitewashing' movie characters, the most recent instance being the casting of Tilda Swinton in 'Doctor Strange.' She, a white woman, is playing 'The Ancient One,' who's clearly Asian in the comic books. And this is after the uproar over Emma Stone being cast as a part-Asian character in "Aloha."

But once the long sequence in the Philippines served its purpose, it was hardly mentioned again. Despite these frustrations, there is some exceptional writing in 'The Sympathizer.' The depiction of the fall (or liberation?) of Saigon at the beginning was so gripping that I had to stop on the subway platform and finish a chapter before I could leave and walk the rest of the way home. And it challenges its white audience to rethink its preconceptions about Vietnam — the country and the war — and about Asia and Asians. Nguyen's voice is an important one — and one we should all endeavor to hear.

'The Sympathizer,' by Viet Thanh Nguyen was published in 2015 by Grove Press. 382 pages.

My rating:

What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'Men Explain Things to Me,' by Rebecca Solnit, 'The First Bad Man,' by Miranda July, and 'The Blind Assassin,' by Margaret Atwood, among others.

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Thanks for reading!*


* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!